Joe Prunty debut game, AP photo

Milwaukee Bucks interim head coach Joe Prunty, left, talks with John Henson during his debut game against the Phoenix Suns at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

MILWAUKEE — Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer isn’t at all surprised that Joe Prunty is taking the ball and dribbling with it as the interim coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The two were once on the same staff in San Antonio and Budenholzer has been watching from a distance since Prunty replaced Jason Kidd, who was fired when the underachieving Bucks had only a 23-22 record midway through his fourth season.

“No doubt you see some changes,” Budenholzer said Tuesday night. “You see him putting his imprint on it.”

For the most part, Prunty’s imprint has been a positive thing for the Bucks.

Their 97-92 victory over the struggling Hawks on Tuesday night at the Bradley Center gave them a 9-2 record on his watch, pushed them to eight games over .500 for the first time since the 2014-15 season and landed them in a tie with Washington for fourth place in the tight Eastern Conference race.

The Bucks’ sparkling, post-Kidd record comes with a warning label attached, though.

Prunty took over just as the Bucks were entering the easiest portion of their schedule, with eight of the 11 games coming against teams with losing records. They went 1-2 against the three teams with winning records, with the only victory coming over a Philadelphia team playing without Joel Embiid.

But here’s the difference: At least the Bucks dominated the soft part of their schedule. That wasn’t always the case during Kidd’s tenure, when they had a well-earned reputation for playing to the level of their competition, battling the NBA’s top teams on even terms one night, then turning around and losing to one of the bottom feeders the next.

Now the Backs are winning the games they should win, and that’s progress. They’ve developed a consistency that was seldom apparent under Kidd.

“We’re just playing hard, we’re playing together, we’re moving the ball,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “The bench is helping a lot.”

And how is that different from the first 45 games?

“It’s pretty much the same,” Antetokounmpo said. “The game plan is the same. I just think the guys are playing with more confidence right now.”

That confidence has resulted in two significant changes in the Bucks. They no longer cave in when they have a bad quarter or a bad half. And their defense is considerably improved since Prunty junked Kidd’s high-risk, high-reward trapping scheme in favor of a more conservative approach.

As often happens when a team returns from a lengthy road trip — even one where it went 3-1 — Milwaukee was sluggish early against Atlanta, missing wide-open 3-point shots.

In the first half, Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker combined for a mere 17 points on 5-for-24 shooting.

But instead of staring at a large deficit, the Bucks trailed by only two points at the half after holding the Hawks to 37.2 percent shooting.

Late in the game, the Hawks overcame a 14-point Bucks lead to tie the score at 84-84, but after a timeout the Bucks put it into overdrive on both ends of the floor.

Antetokounmpo sank a fadeaway jumper, then the Bucks followed up three straight Hawks misses with dunks by Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe and Thon Maker, a stretch of near-perfect execution that gave them a 92-84 lead.

A similar resiliency showed up in the final two games of the road trip, a loss at Miami and a victory at Orlando.

“One of the things we talk about is trying to get better every day and one of the things that fits within that category is, it’s game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter,” Prunty said. “The third quarter against Miami, we struggled, 30-8, but really battled back and gave ourselves a chance. I liked the carryover into the Orlando game in regards to, we faced a deficit ... got it back to where we were going back and forth and got a nice lead and then they made a run at us and we just showed that resiliency.

“So just in terms of being able to battle through tough situations and keep fighting, that’s one of the things we do.”

They do now anyway. They also play consistently good defense, with none of the wild swings they had under Kidd.

The biggest difference is the Bucks have tightened up on opposing 3-point shooters. Giving up open 3s always plagued Kidd’s pressure defense and early this season the Bucks really struggled to protect the rim as well. In the past 11 games, they’ve improved in both areas.

“Our defense has been very good recently,” Prunty said. “One thing is the effort to really get to the 3-point line. ... Our rotations have been good. We’ve talked about and continue to work on where we need them to be even better, but the effort to try and get to the shooters (has been good).

“We’ve done a pretty good job of taking away either the paint or the 3. When you give up both, then it becomes a problem.”

The Bucks didn’t give up either one against the Hawks, but now the real test begins. Starting with a home game against Denver on Thursday night in their final game before the All-Star break, eight of their next nine games are against teams with winning records.

Still, the Bucks’ 9-2 run is a start. And with their improved consistency on both ends and the recent additions of Parker (from injury) and center Tyler Zeller (via trade), there might even be some growth potential.

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Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.


Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.